Photographing the Night Sky from Colorado
Colorado is a great place for those of you who, like me, are perpetually torn between looking up and looking down. Colorado’s spectacular geologic landscapes keep me occupied during the day, but at night a whole different world opens up overhead. Colorado is a great place to look at and photograph the night sky for several reasons:
- It’s relatively dark. With the exception of the Front Range megalopolis (where I now live), there are few egregious sources of light pollution, especially when compared to just about every state east of here.
- It has the highest average elevation of any state. This is important because looking through the Earth’s atmosphere at the stars is like looking through a glass of water at a friend sitting next to you. The higher you go, the thinner the atmosphere becomes, and the better and steadier your view of the night sky.
- It has good weather. Clear skies can be found regularly throughout the year, unlike in the black hole of astronomy known as the Pacific Northwest.
- It has lots of public land where you can theoretically spend all night outside taking photos without fear of getting shot.
I spent a good chunk of this past summer honing my astrophotography skills and if you’ve never tried your hand at it, I encourage you to give it a try. It has certainly made me a better all-around photographer. First and foremost, astrophotography is an exercise in patience, both at the camera itself and then in front of the computer afterwards, and patience is a valuable virtue in all aspects of photography. Ironically, as comfortable as I am outside under the stars, astrophotography actually pushes out of my comfort zone photographically. Apart from minor brightness or contrast adjustments and cropping, I tend to eschew significant post-processing of my photos. When photographing the night sky though, some quality alone time with Photoshop and Lightroom is pretty much a necessity in order to get something that looks good.
I’m not here to give you a step-by-step guide to night sky photography, that’s been done before (try here, here, or here), but simply to encourage you to try it. All you really need to get started is a DSLR, a tripod, some patience, and somewhere dark. Like ACTUALLY dark. Sadly, light pollution has gotten so bad that most people reading this will have never seen a truly pristine night sky. Driving to the suburbs does not qualify as “dark”. Here in the Denver/Boulder/Fort Collins light pollution-opolis, even after driving two hours up to 12,000 feet in Rocky Mountain National Park, you’ll still only see roughly HALF as many stars as can be seen with the naked eye from a truly dark location. To see if there are any pristine night skies near you, check out this nifty site, which is basically Google Maps with an overlay of light pollution severity. You’re looking for areas with the darkest black color and as you’ll see, they are becoming few and far between.
What’s great is how many different ways there are to incorporate the night sky into your photos. With wide-field astrophotography, the entire night sky is the star of the show (pun intended). Accomplished by using fast, wide-angle lenses combined with relatively short exposures (30 seconds or less, unless you have a motorized mount), this method can reveal spectacular detail in the night sky unseen by the human eye, such as the spectacular interstellar dust lanes in the Milky Way. If you pair the Milky Way with a terrestrial landscape illuminated by moonlight, the possibilities for composing spectacular nightscapes become nearly infinite.
Longer exposures (or lots of short ones “stacked” together) document the motion of the stars across the night sky. I have a soft spot for star trails because they are a beautiful reminder that the world we live in is in constant motion; the dramatic and graceful arcs traced out by the stars are due to OUR rotation, not the stars. Star trails centered around the North Star (Polaris) can be especially striking since the north star is almost exactly above the rotational axis of the Earth, and thus moves very little throughout the night.
Probably the most challenging type of astrophotography, and really the only one that requires specialized (often expensive) equipment, is telescopic imaging. My experience in this category is limited, given the aforementioned factors (donations always happily accepted!), but I’ve tried it on a handful of occasions by using friend’s equipment or telescopes at observatories I have worked at. Telescopic astrophotography allows detailed images of galaxies, star clusters, and nebulae, many of which are not even visible to the naked eye. While good images can be obtained by fitting a DSLR to a telescope (below, center and right), the best images are obtained using stand-alone CCD cameras optimized for astrophotography (below, left).
Some objects, like the Moon, are big and bright enough that a telescope is not needed to get decent images. I got this photo of last month’s total lunar eclipse with a standard 55-200mm zoom lens, and even had enough light gathering ability to capture the planet Uranus less than a degree away from the Moon!
Beyond the technical challenge, what ultimately thrills me most about astrophotography is being able to capture photons that have been en route towards us across the vast universe for dozens, hundreds, or even millions of years. After that long of a journey, it feels like our duty to ensure that at least some of those photons have the honor of being recorded in some state of permanence. Give it a try and it won’t be long before you find yourself in the middle of nowhere waiting for your camera to finish a 1-hour exposure. A perfect change to sit back and ponder the vastness of the universe looming over your head.